The first commercial launch of an entirely 3D printed rocket, including primary structures and all major components, is slated to happen in 2021. This is the ambitious plan of one of the most exciting new companies in the sector — Relativity Space, which aims to build a rocket from raw materials to flight within 60 days. Via Satellite recently caught up with Relativity Space Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Tim Ellis to talk about the launch service provider’s plans to make a difference in this space, as well as plans to develop an interplanetary society on Mars. Relativity is planning its first orbital test launch by the end of 2020. It will then build a commercial payload manifest starting in early 2021. Ellis says if a successful flight happens it will be the most radical departure the rocket industry has seen from the fundamental way a complex engineered product is built and flown. “I’d say that alone will make the year successful, but we will also provide great customer value and service to payloads through the first series of launches,” he added.
The business plan based around 3D printing is an interesting one and if successful, could revolutionize the launch services sector. Ellis says the key here is approaching the entire product and company from scratch. “Everything from supply chain, materials and custom alloys, inspection and quality assurance, design methodologies, and of course how things are made, are unique. It all fits together as an intentionally engineered process. In contrast, 3D printing an existing assembly part by part gives iterative cost and time benefit,” he said.
Ellis cites two reasons why he is convinced that 3D printing is the inevitable future of aerospace manufacturing. “The lighter a part is, the faster it prints and thus, the cheaper it is. Because 3D printed parts are sculpted from a block of metal, there is a reward for making parts as light as possible from the strongest materials. This is inverted with traditional methods of production. Printing is good for things that fly, and especially so for rockets,” he said.
Ellis said the second reason is that the ideal factory for building off-planet would be compact, lightweight, intelligent, able to build a wide range of products, and rely on sparse human labor. “This exactly describes an advanced robotic 3D printer, perhaps driven by Artificial Intelligence (AI),” he added. “If SpaceX, NASA, and other companies are going to help send people to Mars, there needs to be dozens to hundreds of companies working on ways to scale and sustain an interplanetary society. Relativity is the second company working to make that future happen.
The company wants to re-imagine the way orbital rockets are built and flown. “For the last 60 years we have used largely traditional manufacturing methods that rely on touch labor and giant factories full of fixed tooling,” Ellis said. “If we want to see routine, low cost access to space happen faster, we need new methods that can scale with more automation, a simpler supply chain, and more software-driven processes. These goals are not antithetic to reusability, but will augment it.”
There is no doubt that the company has an ambitious business plan. Since January 2016 the company has raised over $45 million in private funding from investors including Mark Cuban, Playground Global, Social Capital, and Y Combinator. This funding and the majority of milestones to date were achieved with a team size of only 16 people, though Relativity has recently grown to 26 after its last funding round. Ellis admits the company is always open to talking with potential investors and partners to continue executing on its long-term mission.
But, who will the future customers be? Relativity is building a customer manifest from both commercial and government sectors. Primarily at 1,250 kilogram max payload, it will be able to cost effectively launch Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations for both initial deployment and resupply missions. “At this size, entire orbital planes of smaller satellites are served at extremely reduced costs and call up times while still getting a dedicated launch. Additionally, much larger single or double satellite missions in the 500-1,250kg class are able to resupply their fleet at similar cost per satellite to the initial deployment,” Ellis said.
In terms of profitability, Ellis added that “profitability is achievable with fewer launches than normal; however, we will reinvest early revenues to continue growing the business and meet our customer’s needs. Relativity’s long-term goal is to 3D print the first rocket made on Mars. Building intelligent manufacturing technologies is essential to scaling and sustaining an interplanetary society.”
SpaceX, Blue Origin
Ellis and Relativity Space Co-Founder, Jordan Noone, are drawing from their experiences at working at companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX. Ellis believes what Relativity is doing is quite different from anything he has seen before and certainly more all-in on printing, robotics, and software. There is clearly a debt to these two companies, admitting the fundamental skills of how a large, complex rocket is developed and tested have clearly influenced Relativity. However, it is clear in many ways the company wants to go further. “Much of what Relativity is working on looks at the fundamental areas for improvement which could make significant changes in the cost and frequency of access to space. Our team is inspired by the progress SpaceX and Blue Origin have made. But for the sci-fi future of humanity in space to happen on a large scale in our lifetime, there needs to be more than just reusability. We need something akin to Westworld for rockets. More companies need to go after ambitious goals. It will take dozens to hundreds of companies to actually colonize Mars. Relativity is the second company to hold that as our core mission, and we’ll all need more to follow. Progress in space will happen faster if there is more collaboration and alignment toward similar goals,” he said.
However, while nobody can fault Relativity for its lack of ambition, the launch market is not an easy one to crack from both a technical standpoint and a competitive standpoint. Ellis said it is important to define how crowded the launch space is. “Numerous companies exist on paper, but a scant few have raised significant capital, have serious facilities, have built an experienced team, and developed real customer traction,” he explained. “This is especially true in Relativity’s payload class of more than 300kg to Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO), where there are far fewer players. Many are international like Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and Vega. However, those launch vehicles are significantly more expensive than Relativity’s $10 million, and we believe they may have difficulty scaling production to high launch cadence and quick call up times. Relativity is focusing on the long game.”
The company is focused on solving the problem of how to go from launch one to launch one thousand more effectively, and building a truly revolutionary and differentiated product capability. “In our view, it’s more important to be first to market with the best possible approach, than simply being first to market. Traditionally, rockets have been extremely difficult to modify later in the process and the industry has a lot of inertia to just keep doing the same thing. I don’t think any other technology besides 3D printing and automation could reach a 60-day production timeframe for a medium-small rocket. More so, 60 days later, the rocket we build can learn and improve from prior tests. It may sound a little sci-fi, but so did reusable rockets a few years ago,” he said.